Former Pittsburgh Steeler Joe Gilliam
Jr., who was one of the first black quarterbacks to start an NFL
game but fell into drug addiction and spent two years living under
a bridge in a cardboard box, has died at 49.
Gilliam, who was in such desperate straits at one point that he pawned his two Super Bowl rings, had finally seemed to be getting his life back together when he died of an apparent heart attack on Christmas Day.
Earlier this year, he started a football camp for boys at his alma mater, Tennessee State, and was counseling drug addicts and renewing old relationships.
“Joe had some difficult times and everybody knows that,” said Dan Rooney, president of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Gilliam’s team in the mid-1970s. He said that a players reunion earlier this year, Gilliam “was really upbeat and in great health, probably in better shape than anyone.”
Gilliam was dead on arrival at Baptist Hospital late Monday, hospital spokeswoman Jessica Etz said. Etz said relatives believe Gilliam suffered a heart attack.
Cause of Death Not Declared
An autopsy was completed today, but the Nashville medical examiner won’t declare a cause of death until toxicology tests results are returned in about a month.
Gilliam’s career was marked by a series of highs and lows, including a starting role for the Steelers in 1974, six years after Marlin Briscoe of the Denver Broncos became pro football’s first black starting quarterback.
Drug problems were partly to blame for Gilliam’s benching and the end of his NFL career.
Gilliam talked about it during a reunion of former Steelers players for the final game at Three Rivers Stadium earlier this month, telling former teammates that his life was so tough at one point that he lived in a cardboard box under a bridge.
“I had it all and then it disappeared, and then my life disappeared and now, look, I’m back with my friends again,” he said.
Sober for Three Years
Gilliam said he was in his third year of sobriety, a turnaround his father, a longtime football coach, attributed to his son’s wife of four years and his son’s passion for football.
Gilliam Sr. now has the lost Super Bowl rings, returned to him by fans and friends a few years ago. He was waiting to give them to his son when he thought he was ready.
The family had no comment today when reached at their Nashville apartment.
Gilliam’s big chance with the Steelers came in his third year, 1974, when several veteran players, including Terry Bradshaw, went on strike. Gilliam kept the job when Bradshaw and the others returned, and he led the Steelers to a 4-1-1 record.
Hate Mail and Threats But many Steelers fans were unhappy, and Gilliam said he and the team began receiving hate mail and threats.
“I thought if you played well you got to play,” Gilliam told The Tennessean in a 1999 interview. “I guess I didn’t understand the significance of being a black quarterback at the time.”
Gilliam “was an excellent quarterback and could really throw the ball,” said Dick Hoak, a Steelers assistant coach for 30 years. “But Joe had problems off the field, and that hurt.”
Gilliam played little during the 1975 season, then was cut and didn’t play in the NFL again. He played minor league football in the late 1970s and early ’80s.
This year, his football camp had nearly 80 teenagers, and Gilliam was planning another. He was hoping to become a football coach at a high school or college, said Woody Widenhofer, a friend and former Steelers assistant.
Howard Gentry Jr., former broadcast announcer for Tennessee State, said that when he last saw Gilliam a few weeks ago, the former quarterback told him he was working on a book and a possible movie about his life.
“Everything was just positive. He looked great,” Gentry said. “He seemed to be on top of the world.”
Among Gilliam’s survivors are his father, his wife, three daughters and two stepsons.
Funeral arrangements were incomplete today.